The controversy that periodically surrounds the U.S. prison at the navel base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba seems at present to have quieted. With the media busy chasing Britney Spears from rehab to psychiatric hospital and back, such trivial topics as human rights and the Constitution have no place in the news today.
However, life, such as it is, proceeds at Guantanamo. And now an interesting and tragic case is finding its way into some news reports, and once again the U.S. is flaunting its disdain for its own and international laws.
The case involves one Omar Khadr who, at the advanced age of 15, was shot twice in the back in Afghanistan, in a suspected Al-Qaeda hideout. Mr. Khadr is accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed a U.S. solider.
There are several aspects to this case that have caused it to become more public than many of the others. First and foremost is Mr. Khadr’s age at the time of his arrest. One of his defense lawyers, Navy Lt. William Kuebler, has stated: “U.S. and international law assume that children involved in an armed conflict are not there voluntarily, because they lack the experience and judgment to understand the risk of joining armed forces.” He further points out that the 2006 law under which the Guantanamo court is supposed to operate did not specify the intent to try children as war criminals.
Hold on just one moment, says the U.S. Department of Justice (one wonders just how many oxymora exist in the U.S. government. ‘Homeland Security’ is another one that quickly comes to mind). If Congress meant to exclude children from being tried as war criminals, it would have said so in the law. The law says ‘person,’ which the Justice Department, in a wise and sobering statement, defines as ‘anyone born alive.’
One cannot be too surprised at this. At least one soldier in Iraq reported orders to raid houses and, if any weaponry was found in the home, to arrest any males between the ages of eight and eighty. These individuals are then dragged out of their homes while their wives, mothers and sisters scream in anguish. They are then taken to undisclosed locations for whatever period of time the arresting soldiers, or their ‘superiors,’ choose to detain them. If such males in the U.S. where there is a gun in the home were ordered arrested, there would be few males within that age range outside of prison.
Mr. Khadr has been incarcerated at Guantanamo for six years. He is one of 275 prisoners housed there as part of Mr. Bush’s reign of terror (Mr. Bush prefers to call it a war on terror, yet he has unleashed terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq beyond what the world has seen in decades). Mr. Khadr is scheduled, finally, for trial in May, but that date is expected to be postponed.
Another aspect of this case is troubling. Mr. Khadr is charged with murder because he was believed to be the only one still alive in the building when the grenade came flying out of it. Yet a report given by the soldier who shot him says that not only was Mr. Khadr alive there, an adult man was also alive at the time he, the U.S. soldier, rushed in shooting. This contradicts the testimony of another solider who said that only Mr. Khadr was alive at the time.
The chief military prosecutor, Army Col. Larry Morris, is not troubled by this apparent discrepancy. Said he: “That is a window into what happens at war; lots of people with fleeting perspectives in short periods of time, trying to remember their best, trying to perceive as best, as quickly as they can and then report it as accurately as they can.”
It is certainly known and accepted that even eyewitnesses will remember significant details very differently. That is one reason why American jurisprudence is built on the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ why the right to a speedy trial is an American tradition, at least in theory, and why defendants in the U.S. must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Mr. Khadr has been in Guantanamo for five years. He was a child when he arrived and if Mr. Bush has his way, will never leave prison. Yet the testimony against him, based on what little is known, is certain to cast a ‘reasonable doubt’ on his guilt. With two eyewitnesses contradicting each other, Mr. Khadr would probably walk free. Indeed, had he been charged with murder on a U.S. city street, he probably would have been tried and acquitted by now. Of course there would have been some delay as prosecutors and defense attorneys argued over whether or not he should be tried as an adult. Mr. Bush does not trouble himself with such issues: Mr. Khadr is accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed an American soldier. The fact that he was 15 at the time, no one saw him do it and there is at least a 50-50 chance that he didn’t do it is of little importance to the U.S. president.
Journalists who wish to visit Guantanamo to report on this and other trials must sign an agreement that they will not divulge secret information they might learn there. One wonders what treatment these prisoners must be receiving if they are suspected of having such vital information, yet are forced to remain there for years on end. Why are journalists not allowed to report freely on trials in Guantanamo as they are in, say, New York?
This is the prison that former presidential candidate wannabe Mitt Romney wants doubled in population. Mr. Khadr is a victim of one of the wars that the newly and all-but-officially crowned GOP presidential candidate John McCain will continue should he be elected or appointed president. The Republican Party has long called itself the party of ‘family values.’ The need to protect children is apparently not required for those who fall too far from the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant model that the GOP represents. The 15-year-old Mr. Khadr was not entitled to such protections; few people know what his treatment has been, or what ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (read: torture) this young man has experienced since he was first thrown into the hell known as Guantanamo.
And so America’s disgrace continues in ’emperor’s-new-clothes’ fashion. See, Mr. Bush will tell all and sundry, the U.S. is and always has been the beacon of peace, freedom and hope for the rest of the world. It is a model of democracy to which all other countries aspire. It guarantees equal rights for all in the sacred Constitution, written by hero-patriots two centuries ago of which, he will claim, he is only a humble follower. So what, he will further say, if the U.S. invades sovereign nations, violates the Constitution at will, removes basic rights from its own citizens as it incarcerates and tortures people it deems ‘the enemy?’ Let’s go back to the ‘peace, freedom and hope’ mantra that has sold so well for so long. There is no reason to consider the plight of a 15-year-old prisoner incarcerated by the U.S. in one of the most notorious prisons on the planet today. Look up, America, to the glorious opportunities the U.S. offers to all (except those living in the inner cities and many rural areas of the country; those without the means to afford higher education or health care, and the homeless). The bright lights of freedom and opportunity are out there: work hard, devote yourself to the great American dream and someday the riches of the world will belong to your CEO. You will then be ‘downsized’ as that CEO sells his stock, bankrupts the company, and your life savings disappear. But with the safety net of Social Security, a room in a boarding house and nutritious meals of cat food will still be available to you.
This hypocrisy is not new; it has been inherent in the fabric of U.S. politics for generations. That so many people continue to believe it is also not new, but remains astounding.
Faced with another presidential election, one wonders what the U.S. voter will choose. The options are more of the same under a Republican president, or a glimmer of hope of change under either a President Clinton or President Obama. As voters go to the polls in November they should all remember the 15-year-old Omar Khadr, either forced into the military or perhaps trying to defend his homeland from foreign invaders in the only way he knew how. Either way he is a victim of U.S. imperialism, and the only way to prevent more such victims is a drastic change in government in the U.S. Since that option is not being offered, at least a slight change is better than nothing. If the flow of blood of innocent victims cannot be stopped, at least perhaps it can be slowed.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.‘